Afghan civilians continue to bear the brunt of the Taliban takeover in the country where humanitarian needs remain critical and widespread among existing and newly displaced populations, UN agencies said on Tuesday.
Some 18 million people in the country need aid assistance and one in three children is expected to be severely malnourished this year, said UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF.
Speaking via Zoom from the capital Kabul, the agency’s chief of field operations & emergencies, Mustapha Ben Messaoud, reported seeing hungry infants, some with terrible wounds after clashes between the country’s new rulers and Afghan Security Forces.
“In Kandahar, I have seen the direct impacts of this recent flare in fighting and that impact is severely malnourished children I have seen injured in such a way, that it’s difficult to describe, young children, as young as 10 months,” he said.
Isabelle Moussard Carlsen, Head of the UN Humanitarian Office (OCHA) in Afghanistan, told UN News that some 16 million people in the country are in need of aid:
Inside Kabul, Mr. Ben Messaoud said that the situation was “improving”, although mobile health teams from the World Health Organization (WHO) had been forced to halt operations in recent days, owing to insecurity. “There is great need there that we need to attend to,” the UNICEF official added.
The recent fighting has also taken a heavy toll on an already fragile health system, which faces “a shortage of essential medical supplies and equipment in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic”, said WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic. “Needs assessment and service delivery by mobile health teams is on hold for the past 24 hours and that’s due to security and the unpredictable situation in Kabul.”
From the UN human rights office, OHCHR, spokesperson Rupert Colville underlined “chilling reports of human rights abuses, and of restrictions on the rights of individuals, especially women and girls, in some parts of the country captured over the past few weeks. Such reports continue to be received.
Unfortunately, for the time being, the flow of information has been considerably disrupted, and we have not been in a position to verify the most recent allegations.”
Mr. Colville also described “desperate scenes” at Kabul airport on Monday, where videos screened on social media showed desperate men clinging to a US airforce plane as it prepared to leave the capital.
“Fortunately, the capital and the other last major cities to be captured such as Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif were not subjected to prolonged fighting, bloodshed or destruction,” he continued. “However, the fear instilled in a significant proportion of the population is profound, and – given past history – thoroughly understandable.”
Mr. Colville said that Taliban spokespeople had issued several statements including pledging an amnesty for those who worked for the previous Government. “They have also pledged to be inclusive.
They have said woman can work and girls can go to school. Such promises will need to be honoured, and for the time being - again understandably, given past history - these declarations have been greeted with some scepticism. Nevertheless, the promises have been made, and whether or not they are honoured or broken will be closely scrutinized.”
Amid grave concerns about the risk of new human rights violations against civilians in Afghanistan based on previous Taliban rule, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) urged refugee host nations not to repatriate vulnerable Afghan nationals.
“In the wake of the rapid deterioration and the security and human rights situation in large parts of the country and the unfolding humanitarian emergency, UNHCR calls on States to halt possible returns of Afghan nationals who have previously been determined not to be in need of international protection,” said spokesperson Shabia Mantoo.
Just spoke with the Acting Health Minister of #Afghanistan, Dr. Majrooh @WahidMajrooh, who is in #Kabul trying to ensure maintenance of essential health services & avoid disruption. I thanked him for his strong commitment to serving people in need. @WHO will continue supporting. pic.twitter.com/rWZcIi5Xow— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) August 17, 2021
For the moment, the number of people leaving Afghanistan in search of shelter in neighbouring countries has been relatively low, Ms. Mantoo explained, before underscoring the massive needs inside the country.
“Out of the hundreds of thousands of people that have been displaced, we have now 550,000 people displaced within the country, so they are still within Afghanistan,” she said. “In recent weeks, the majority of those have fled in recent weeks and 80 per cent of those that are newly displaced are women and children.”
With 13 field offices across Afghanistan and decades of experience in rural communities, UNICEF officer Mr. Ben Messaoud noted that contact had already been established with Taliban representatives.
There was even reason to be “slightly optimistic”, he said, noting that “the stand of the Taliban is more or less the same but we’ve seen small differences, especially in terms of girls’ education. There are areas, part of the country, where they told us that they are waiting for guidance from their leadership, religious and political. In other places, they actually said that they want to see girls’ education and school up and running.”
Migration agency concerns
Head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), António Vitorino, echoed concerns for all those displaced by the violence and civilians in need of assistance.
The country has already been severely affected by years of conflict and drought, he said in a statement, adding that nearly 400,000 people had been displaced since the beginning of the year as a result of ongoing violence, while more than five million others were already internally displaced and reliant on humanitarian aid.
“IOM reiterates that the safety and protection of civilians remains the number one priority and appeals to all parties to ensure unhindered access for all humanitarian actors providing relief and much-needed assistance to affected populations who should be able to continue to exercise their fundamental rights,” said Mr. Vitorino.
After echoing the call by UN Secretary-General António Guterres for an immediate end to violence and the protection of the rights of civilians, the IOM chief insisted that ensuring the safety of civilians was “paramount and should be a priority for all concerned. IOM urges all parties to continue efforts to maintain dialogue and work towards a peaceful resolution of the situation, prioritizing the welfare of the Afghan people.”
National staff protection appeal
Regarding national staff who have assisted the United Nations and its partners in the past, UN Geneva spokesperson Rhéal LeBlanc reiterated the Organisation’s insistence that they should come to no harm.
“We are extremely grateful to the important work they have done for the United Nations and its bodies and entities over numerous years,” he said, noting that no UN staff had been evacuated from Kabul. “It’s clear that the Taliban and other authorities have the responsibility to protect and ensure the safety of UN staff whether they be national or international and to do whatever they can to ensure their safety.”